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Airport Body Scanners Are Less Revealing — and Less of a Health Risk

By Dr. Marisa Weiss on February 26th, 2014 Categories: Uncategorized

I think plane travel is a miracle. A few short hours in the air can take me to far-flung loved ones or mean the difference between a regular day at home and a fabulous adventure. It always amazes me to know that I can wake up at home and go to sleep someplace halfway around the world all in the same day.

Still, air travel can get extremely complicated, even after my packing is done. The airport is an obstacle course of slow, winding lines at security, greasy and overpriced food, uncomfortable sparse seating at the gate, and sudden flight delays with more lines to re-book. Then there’s my fear of flying. Does any of this sound familiar?

There are also the body scanners that have been part of security checks since 2008. Some travelers worry about looking virtually naked going through security. Others are worried the scanners are exposing them to cancer-causing radiation.

You’ve probably heard these concerns and wondered about them. I know I did. Now is a good time to find out more.

Whole-body scanners

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, U.S. airport security made changes to reduce the risk of another terrorist attack. Using whole-body scanners was one of those changes. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says the scanners are needed because metal detectors can’t spot many types of explosives.

If you’ve flown since 2008, you’ve likely seen whole-body scanners at the checkpoint where TSA officers check carry-on bags. Today, as many as 1 billion whole-body scans are done every year at U.S. airports.

At the start, the TSA used two types of scanners. Both could quickly detect a wide range of threats, but they used different technologies:

  • X-ray backscatter: The backscatter machine looks like two large blue boxes positioned side-by-side. It uses X-rays that reflect away — or “scatter back” — from clothing and skin, but not metal.
  • millimeter wave: This machine looks like a large glass telephone booth. It uses beams of radio frequency energy, like those released by cell phones, to detect concealed metallic and nonmetallic items, including weapons and explosives.

All images courtesy of TSA.gov

The first concerns about the scanners were about the graphic images they produced, particularly the X-ray backscatter machine. Many people didn’t want security personnel looking at naked pictures of their bodies. They complained that whole-body scanning was a breach of privacy.

In response, Congress ordered scanners be equipped with privacy software. The makers of the millimeter wave scanners were able to develop privacy filters that created less-detailed images and protected travelers from feeling overexposed. But the makers of the backscatter systems couldn’t meet the new requirements. So the TSA said it would phase out the backscatter machines.

By May 2013, all 250 backscatter machines were removed from U.S. airports. For now, all of the more than 700 body scanners in use at U.S. airports are millimeter wave machines with the privacy filters.

Health concerns about body scanners

The phase out of the backscatter machines was good news for another reason besides privacy. There also were concerns about X-ray radiation from the backscatter scanners increasing cancer risk. The radiation dose from going through a backscatter scanner was approximately 10 times less than a single dental X-ray. Even though this is a very tiny dose, some scientists felt that the radiation could increase the risk of cancer among people who fly.

Scientists estimated the increase in cancer risk to be extremely small — an additional 6 to 100 cancers per year among all people who fly. But there also was concern that the TSA hadn’t done enough research on the scanners’ potential health effects on people vulnerable to radiation, such as small children, adolescent girls, pregnant women, and elderly people.

As a breast cancer survivor, I also felt vulnerable going through backscatter machines when they were in my airport security lane. It’s important to avoid any potential day-to-day hazards, especially when there’s a safer alternative: a security scanner that doesn’t use radiation. I used to bypass the scanner and agree to a pat-down by one of the TSA agents.

So it’s a relief that backscatter machines have been removed from U.S. airports. The machines also have been removed from airports in the European Union. They were banned there in 2011 because of questions about their safety.

The millimeter wave machines have raised almost no health concerns. The overall consensus among scientists is that the risks are extremely low, far less than that of a single cell phone call. Still, some scientists are concerned that research on the health effects of the millimeter wave machines is lacking.

If you want to skip body scanners

If you’re still concerned about airport scanners, it’s important to know that you have another option.

You can do what I used to do when the backscatter machines were in place and refuse to go through a scanner. Instead, you can ask for a “full-body pat-down.” You have to wait for an available female TSA officer to perform the full-body pat-down. (Unfortunately, it’s not like a free massage.) It usually takes place in public, but you can ask for it to be done in a private room. You also can request to have a witness in the room as well.

A pat-down can take longer than body scanning and it might be uncomfortable since the officer closely examines the body. Some people who have gone through airport security pat-downs have described it as an ordeal. For me it was just a hassle.

Other concerns at the airport

If you have a medical device, such as certain ports and tissue expanders (some hip replacements and pacemakers, too), you might be concerned about setting off the metal detector at the security checkpoint. To ease security worries and embarrassment, passengers with a health condition, disability, or medical device can request a disability notification card from the TSA. The card allows passengers to quietly let TSA screeners know about a disability or condition that could affect screening. Passengers also can call the TSA’s toll-free hotline (1-855-787-2227) to discuss screening procedures and coordinate checkpoint support when necessary.

I’ve started bringing a light meal from home so I can skip the food at the airport. I’ve carried on plastic bags filled with nuts, granola, fruit, and cheese to make a simple, satisfying meal. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are surprisingly delicious on a plane, too. If I have more time, I’ll pack raw veggies or a hearty salad. Security doesn’t seem to mind as long as any liquids, such as  salad dressing, are packaged in containers that hold 3.4 ounces or less.

Recently, I found out I was eligible for the TSA PreCheck program, which helps avoid some of the security hassles. After scanning my boarding pass, I was allowed to go through the PreCheck line to see what it was like. In the PreCheck line, you no longer have to take out liquids or laptops. You also get to keep your shoes, belt, and jacket on. It’s not a lot, but every little bit helps, and this line goes much faster!

The PreCheck program officially started taking applications at participating U.S. airports in December (for information on how to apply, visit the TSA website.

What tips do you use to make air travel easier? How do you save money on food when you travel? Would you apply to the PreCheck program?

Dr. Marisa Weiss

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president and guiding force behind Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 8 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.

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